Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Lost in Conflation: The Estonian City of Narva and Its Russian-Speakers
Lost in Conflation: The Estonian City of Narva and Its Russian-Speakers

Lost in Conflation: The Estonian City of Narva and Its Russian-Speakers


Estonia grunge flag

Media accounts suggest that the Baltic Sea region is reaching a boiling point. Russian military actions and irredentist aggression in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea have dramatically altered our understanding of the region. Journalists, security experts, and scholars alike are asking whether conflict will spread to other areas, from Kazakhstan, to Moldova, to the Baltic States. In Estonia, for example, Russia and Western accounts suggest that the Russian-speaking city of Narva, which sits along the Russian-Estonian border, is ripe for conflict. My recent fieldwork among Narva’s Russian-speakers, however, suggests that while residents of Narva have a distinct Russian-speaking community and identity, relatively few people identify strongly with the Russian state. 

Introduction and Context

Why has Estonia emerged as a potential site of conflict? The country was occupied by both the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. The legacy of occupation remains, above all in demographic terms. During the Soviet period, Russian-speakers of multiple ethnicities migrated to the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, in the process dramatically decreasing the ethnic Estonian share of the population from 88.1% in 1934 to 61.5% by 1989. Today, Russian-speakers comprise 28% of Estonia’s total population. They tend to live in segregated communities, including in the capital Tallinn and the northeastern borderland city of Narva.

Narva and its surrounding Ida-Viru County are considered prime targets of Russian aggression. The region shares demographic and geographic similarities with the Donbas area of Eastern Ukraine. Both regions are comprised of large Russian-speaking populations, of various ethnicities, many of whom are Russian citizens. Russian-speakers comprise roughly 97% of Narva’s total population, 37% of whom are Russian citizens. Both Narva and the Donbas are former industrial centers with rich natural resources that have suffered from post-Soviet economic decline. Additionally, both regions border Russia and have histories of local support for separatism or autonomy.


While the demographics of Narva provide some insight on the region’s politics, geopolitical shifts have exacerbated the potential for conflict. Recent developments include a dramatic increase in military activity in the Baltic Sea region by Russia and NATO, from an increase in NATO troops on Estonian territory to Russian incursions in Baltic airspace.

This new militarization has occurred alongside an expansion of Russian policies to mobilize Russian-speaking diasporas in neighboring countries. Such policies target Russian-speakers through cultural, language, historical, and human rights’ programs and organizations. Many people in Estonia fear that the Kremlin will use such programs to influence Estonian internal affairs and cause political instability.

Russia’s military activity and diaspora policies expand its political reach into Estonia by fomenting discontent and exploiting ethnic cleavages between ethnic Estonians and Russian-speakers. Three important cleavages are citizenship, language, and integration, all of which reinforce an Estonian “one state-two societies” system. These cleavages are highly contentious because their associated policies tend to be interpreted as nationalistic and rigid. Citizenship policy in particular remains a major problem for Estonia’s Russian-speakers and Estonian-Russian relations. Estonia’s citizenship policy initially guaranteed citizenship only to citizens of pre-Soviet (1940) Estonia and their descendants. This policy left most Soviet-era migrants and their descendants stateless and without full rights. Many Russian-speakers therefore faced a choice between naturalization, emigration, and statelessness. These cleavages are most problematic in Narva, where previous aspirations for autonomy, post-Soviet socio-economic declines, and current geopolitical shifts mix.

Understanding Narva & Narva’s Russian-speakers

How are Narva and Narva’s Russian-speakers represented by media and security expert accounts? Russian-speakers as a whole tend to be represented either as Russian “fifth columnists” or “pawns” by Western sources or as victims of Estonian nationalist aggression by Russian sources. Western sources describe Narva as “NATO’s Russian city” that is “the next target of Russian annexation.” While such interpretations of Narva and Russian-speakers, are not new, these interpretations have real-life implications. To what extent are they accurate descriptions of Narva and Narva’s Russian-speakers?


What can be gleaned from Estonia’s Russian-speakers and Narva at the local level? While Narva’s residents are predominantly ethnic Russians who speak the Russian language and have some familial, cultural, and historical ties to Russia, Narvans are not solely defined by Russia and Russian-ness. Narva’s Russian-speakers are complex and have diverse identities. While numerous factors can be used to better grasp Narva and its Russian-speakers, there are four key factors to understanding this city and community: citizenship, politics, identity, and community (as place). Both in Russia and the West, Narvan Russian-speakers are interpreted as a pro-Russian political force. These factors, however, illustrate that Narvans consider themselves more as Narvans and Estonians rather than Russians.

When it comes to citizenship, Narva’s Russian-speakers are fragmented. Roughly 35% are Estonian citizens, 39% are Russian citizens, and 17% are stateless residents. Many Narvans lack Estonian citizenship and perceive naturalization—and Estonian language tests in particular—as too difficult to achieve. But most Narvans would prefer Estonian citizenship to either Russian citizenship or statelessness, according to my research. Regardless of citizenship, many Narvans participate as active members of Narva’s civic and political community, such as by voting (including stateless residents, who can vote in local elections); engaging via media; and participating in civil society organizations. Nonetheless, many Narvans are frustrated with the country’s citizenship policy and would prefer a law that allocated citizenship based on birthplace rather than the citizenship status of one’s parents.

Russian-speakers are not a major political power in Estonian politics. There is no substantial “Russian” party or political organization that voices their concerns on a national scale. The majority of Narva’s Russian-speakers are not interested in national politics, although many are concerned about political interests such as language and education. Russian-speakers tend to support the mainstream Centre Party over other political parties, particularly in Narva. While not overtly a Russian political party, the Centre Party maintains ties with Putin’s United Russia party and promotes an ethnically inclusive platform. The recent fragmentation of Centre Party dominance, however, suggests that Russian-speakers are diversifying their political allegiances.

Russian-speakers in Narva maintain complex, plural identities. It is wrong to think that Russian speakers identify with the Russian state. I researched how Narva Russian-speakers defined their place-based (or spatial) identities. When asked to assess various place-based identities, most of Narva’s Russian-speakers noted that local (Narva) and country (Estonia) were the most important to them, while county (Ida-Viru), European Union, and world were also somewhat important. While some Narvans also identify with Russia, particularly those who are Russian citizens, my research found that, overall, Narvans perceive Russia as their least important place-based identity. Identification with the city of Narva and Estonia were far more important. Russian-speakers are not necessarily Russian sympathizers.

Why do Narvans place so much emphasis on local, city-level identity? They perceive their community as distinct in comparison to other communities, including Russian-speaking neighborhoods in Tallinn. Narvans partly define their distinctiveness through shared local characteristics including Narva’s border proximity, natural environment, Russian-ness, history, and regional isolation or separateness. My research suggests that Narvans’ own geographical imagination foregrounds Narva’s separateness, not just from Estonia but also from Russia. Narvans perceive their community as an almost different and separate space in juxtaposition to Estonia and Russia. Thus, while Narva’s Russian-speakers are impacted by Estonia and Russia, distinct localisms, local preferences, attachments, identities, customs, and characteristics, are most important. These localisms differ, conflict, and can inform how media, security experts, and governments represent and interact with Narva and Narva’s Russian-speakers.

For Narva’s Russian Speakers Local Identity Trumps All Other Factors

What can be extracted from these findings and local insights?

  • Narva’s Russian-speakers are not a monolithic population, nor do all of them strongly identify with Russia;
  • Narva’s Russian-speakers overall favor and are receptive to Estonian citizenship, identity, and politics compared to Russian;
  • Narva’s Russian-speakers are frustrated, wary, and critical of the Estonian state, politics, and citizenship policies. Narva’s Russian-speakers desire to be part of the larger Estonian community, citizenry, and political system. However, current policies and approaches hinder equitable communication, collaboration, and integration between the Estonian majority and state and Russian-speaking minority;
  • Narvans have strong identification with and attachment to their home city.

Narva and Narvans are increasingly portrayed as major threats to Estonia and the larger region. Western media and security experts describe Narva and Narvans as Russian, presuming that they support the Russian state. This oversimplifies Narva and Narvans. My research highlights the importance of local identity and localisms. Narvans may speak Russian and maintain cultural, familial, linguistic, and historical connections with Russia. But they identify above all with Narva, then Estonia, and then, lastly, Russia.